Tag Archives: Poultry

Cornish

CornishDue to its bulldoggish appearance, some fear that the Cornish was originally bred for the cruel sport of fighting. Thankfully, this is not the case. Although descended from fierce birds such as the Asil, the Malay, and the Old English Game Fowl, the Cornish was specifically produced for the tables of Cornwall during its earliest years, hence its squat, broad-breasted physique. During the 1840s, crossing local chickens with gamefowl was a common method of improving the vigor of the former in England.

From its humble beginnings as the Sunday supper of the Cornish mining folk, the Cornish soon spread across England. Subsequent crossbreeding to improve its table qualities involved Dorking, Orpington, and Light Sussex chickens.

By the 1880s, the Cornish was falling out of favor in Great Britain as a meat bird due to its yellow skin. About that time, however, it was introduced to North America, where it enjoyed a considerable degree of popularity.

The original Cornish was the handsome dark variety. Subsequent breeding produced the white-laced red for show and the white for fast-growing broiler production.

Ironically, the development of the growthy White Cornish dealt a severe blow to the breed as a whole, as it was this variety that eventually became the basis of the crossbred broiler industry, reducing the need and demand for pure Cornish chickens for meat. Today, there are relatively few Cornish chickens in the United States.

CornishUses

The Cornish can be divided into three distinct types these days, each with a slightly different genetic background:

  • The commercial type, used for breeding crossbred broilers.
  • The exhibition type, kept primarily for show.
  • The traditional type, still raised as a home meat bird on some small farms and homesteads.

A commonly overlooked use of the Cornish hen is as a pet. These birds are surprisingly affectionate.

Temperament

The Cornish hen is a delightful bird to have around due to her docility and friendliness. She is easy to tame and will amply reward any attention given to her. Cornish hens usually tend toward the bottom of the pecking order in mixed flocks.

The Cornish rooster is another story. He is rather aggressive and may not be suitable for families with small children.

Keep in mind that all Cornish chickens, male or female, are quite active and need plenty of space to move. This is not a breed that will be happy in confinement.

CornishHealth

The Cornish does not do well during times of extreme heat or cold. Hot weather may prompt a heart attack, and the breed’s short, sparse feathering makes keeping warm a challenge in a cold wind. On the whole, however, the Cornish is better suited to cold than heat. Its tiny comb is almost impervious to frostbite. When provided with snug, draft-free housing, it should do well in all but the coldest temperatures.

Also keep in mind that Cornish chickens, due to their heftiness, are prone to reproductive difficulties and heart attacks. They generally have a short lifespan. Restricting their feed intake may help.

Pros

  • Predator savvy.
  • Good winter egg production.
  • Large egg size.
  • Firm eggshells.
  • Large quantities of white meat.
  • Excellent meat texture.

CornishCons

  • Unsuitability for extreme climates.
  • Hefty appetite.
  • Slow maturity (especially compared to commercial broilers).
  • Short lifespan.
  • Inability to breed naturally unless kept on a lean diet.
  • Low egg production overall.
  • Poor success rate when brooding.
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Chicken BreedsChicken Breeds

Cochin

CochinIf the American poultry keepers of today were to see the Cochin of the mid-1800s, they would hardly recognize the breed! The old Cochin was a tall, rangy bird with relatively sparse feathering on its gangling shanks. However, it had a beautiful ginger color that, combined with its impressive size and considerable laying ability, attracted considerable attention when it arrived in the United States and Great Britain in the 1840s.

There is a notion that the Cochin hails from Vietnam, where a French colony named Cochin-China boasted a breed of feather-footed fowl. Actually, the ancestor of the modern Cochin came from China proper, where it was known as the Shanghai (as was the fledgling Brahma, just to keep it confusing). Queen Victoria is credited with calling the chickens Cochin-China, evidently misguided by the fact that the breed was large, Asian, and feather-footed to some degree.

In any case, the royal approval combined with the striking looks of the Cochin guaranteed it a loyal following among the poultry-show crowd. Chickens were bought and sold for hundreds of dollars, while poultrymen devoted their careers to selecting and crossbreeding for more and more feathers. The Cochin slowly lost its usefulness as a layer, and its meat quality gradually declined, but it unquestionably became a lovable, fluffy fowl.

Today, the Cochin breed as a whole is extremely popular in America, although some of its many color varieties are rather rare, most notably blue and silver-laced.

The bantam Cochin is worth a separate mention, as it has a distinct geographical origin from the standard-sized type. The bantam hails from Peking rather than Shanghai, and is indeed still called the Pekin Bantam in England today. This little chicken is one of the most popular feather-footed bantam breeds.

CochinUses

The Cochin is considered an ornamental chicken and is largely kept for show or as a pet.

In small backyard flocks, however, the Cochin can play an extremely valuable role as a broody hen. Few other breeds even approach the considerable persistence of the Cochin when it comes to brooding. This hen will even sit on the eggs of other species of poultry!

Finally, the Cochin has some potential as a meat breed due to its large size.

Temperament

Few chickens are as calm and unruffled as the Cochin. It is amiable enough to put up with any amount of handling and attention, even from small children. It is submissive enough to tolerate the most domineering of flockmates. Even the roosters are mellow. In fact, if the Cochin has a vice, it is likely either laziness or gluttony. (All that said, note that the broody hen does have a well-developed protective instinct.)

The bantam variety has a little more spunk, although still being gentle on the whole. It loves people and if tame will often demand attention. The bantam rooster can be somewhat aggressive and territorial.

CochinHealth

There are several potential problems to watch out for in the Cochin breed. The first set of problems relates to its dense feathering. While being a decided advantage in cold weather (although you should keep an eye out for frostbitten combs in roosters), the thick insulation that the Cochin sports will be very detrimental in the summer, making this breed a less-than-ideal choice in warm climates. Also watch out for external parasites—lice and mites love to hide under all those feathers.

Next, be aware of the potential shortcomings of feathered feet. Cochins do best on well-drained soils with short grass. Coarse ground covers will damage the feathers on the legs, while mud balls can cause toe injuries and snow buildup can cause frostbite. When necessary, use warm water to loosen up mud for removal (always let the feathers dry completely before turning the chicken back out).

Also watch out for obesity. As previously mentioned, the vices of the Cochin are laziness and gluttony, which can cause heart ailments and metabolic problems, besides making the bird slow of movement and thus more vulnerable to predators. When possible, ration out the feed to prevent excess weight gain (this may be hard to do if you keep other breeds in the same flock).

The size and weight of the Cochin can cause leg injuries when the chicken is trying to jump up to or down from a perch. Keep the perches low to avoid accidents.

And then there are a few things that may look like health problems but are actually normal in the Cochin. Be aware that Cochin chicks often take 22 days to hatch rather than 21—there is no cause for alarm with this breed, as they usually make it out without difficulty and start thriving in short order. Also note that delayed feathering is common in young Cochins, but should cause only cosmetic woes.

CochinPros

  • Excellent disposition.
  • Low space requirements of bantams.
  • Tendency not to fly over fences.
  • Suitability for confinement-based production systems.
  • Excellent cold tolerance.
  • Good winter egg-laying ability.
  • Large eggs.
  • Broodiness.
  • Exceptional mothering abilities.
  • Carcass size.

Cons

  • Considerable space requirements of standard-sized Cochins.
  • Vulnerability to predators.
  • Low heat tolerance.
  • Hefty appetite.
  • Poor foraging instincts.
  • Short lifespan.
  • Low egg production, especially in summer.
  • Slow growth.
  • Excessively dark meat.
  • Coarse meat texture.
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Chicken BreedsChicken Breeds

 

Brahma

BrahmaThe Brahma is often considered to be an ancient breed, hailing from the Brahmaputra River of India. It is true that its ancestors did come from that vicinity, and also probably from China via the clipper ships of yore. However, the Brahma as we know it today is an American creation, developed by crossing several of the old Asian chicken breeds, probably in the late 1840s and early 1850s.

While it was the Americans who developed the Brahma, it was the British who made it wildly popular. In 1852, a Mr. Burnham presented Queen Victoria with a small flock of Brahmas, which by all accounts she promptly fell in love with. And when Queen Victoria approved of an animal of any sort, the people on both sides of the Atlantic promptly followed suit. Brahma chickens quickly boomed in both popularity and price, a good breeding pair fetching as much as $150.

It is hard to imagine, but both the original Light Brahma of the United States and the Dark Brahma created in those early days by British fanciers were even larger and taller then than they are today. While the breed was exceedingly popular for exhibition, it also had a steady following among those bringing meat birds to market, and indeed was considered the finest breed for the table for decades. This changed, however, with the industrial chicken-breeding revolution of the 1930s, when hefty, fast-growing broilers became popular.

But these days the Brahma has little to fear, as it is quickly regaining its popularity. Its beauty and dignity won it favor among many hobby farmers and backyard chicken keepers looking for something a little different. The Internet has fostered this trend—a video of a particularly large Brahma rooster recently went viral and prompted many to add the breed to their flocks.

BrahmaUses

The primary purpose of the Brahma is still exhibition, although it does have modest potential as a dual-purpose breed for homestead-scale meat and egg production. Probably its greatest strengths in the world of homesteading are the capabilities of the female as a superb broody hen and the male as a guardian of the flock.

Another interesting contribution the Brahma has made to the poultry realm is a genetic one. The Brahma has been used to develop many new chicken breeds, and with judicious crossbreeding it can be used to establish new color varieties within existing breeds.

Temperament

Few breeds are as docile as the Brahma. They are extremely easy to handle and tame, and they quickly warm up to human interaction. In fact, they may demand attention from their people friends (particularly if treats are involved).

The large size of the Brahma seems to encourage respect from the other chickens in a mixed flock. However, they never abuse their position by bullying the other chickens. Brahma hens do sometimes receive excessive attention from roosters, so care may be needed to prevent injuries.

The Brahma hen, while not usually considered overly broody, has strong instincts to hatch eggs. She also makes an excellent mother to the chicks.

The Brahma rooster is a strong favorite among all who have known him. He is too dignified to be as outgoing as the hens, but he is nevertheless extremely docile and remarkably calm. Bad actors can be found among roosters of any breed, but the typical Brahma male is well-mannered. While he does have strong protective instincts, he is highly unlikely to attack without provocation.

BrahmaHealth

Overall, the Brahma is a hardy, healthy breed that should present no difficulties to the attentive chicken-keeper. It tends to thrive from day one and typically hatches quickly with few problems.

This said, the Brahma does have a few special requirements, although they are relatively modest. First, be aware that it is a large breed that needs a lot of feed when it is growing. Hungry chickens may resort to picking and cannibalism if their nutritional needs are not being met, so make sure young Brahmas have access to all the feed they want. They are not at all prone to obesity at this early stage, so rationing out the feed will likely do more harm than good.

Second, the Brahma does not particularly enjoy hot weather. However, it can easily make it through the summer without too much discomfort if provided with access to shade and fresh, cool water all day. (Note that chickens of all breeds really should be provided with this level of care.)

Finally, several health problems can arise from the feathered feet of this breed:

  • Toe injuries caused by mud balls.
  • Frostbite caused by a buildup of snow.
  • Scaly leg mites and other external parasites.
  • Profuse bleeding from broken feather quills.

Keeping the chickens in clean, dry quarters with access to a place to dust bathe will prevent most foot problems. During wet weather, periodic foot examinations can be beneficial. Balls of snow and mud should be removed as necessary. If a mud ball is particularly firmly fixed, try softening it in warm water before removal. Mites can be treated with diatomaceous earth. Bleeding quills can be stopped up with a pinch of corn starch and the application of pressure.

Brahma

Pros

  • Excellent disposition.
  • Adaptability to both cold and hot climates with proper care.
  • Adaptability to both confinement and free-range systems.
  • Tendency not to fly over fences.
  • Good winter egg production.
  • Large eggs.
  • Excellent brooding and mothering instincts.
  • Large carcass.

Cons

  • Unsuitability for poorly drained soils.
  • Large space requirements in both coops and runs.
  • Need for sturdy perches and large nesting boxes.
  • Hearty appetite.
  • Slow maturity.
  • Below-average egg production.
Complete Series

Chicken BreedsChicken Breeds

 

Black Star

Black StarThe Black Star goes by a number of names, including Black Sex Link and Black Beauty, depending on the hatchery. It is not a pure breed, but rather a crossbred chicken produced by mating a Barred Plymouth Rock hen to a Rhode Island Red (or occasionally New Hampshire Red) rooster. The name “Sex Link” refers to the fact the gender of the resulting chicks can be identified with complete accuracy at hatching, the females being black and the males being black with a white spot on the head. (Note that, if Black Star chickens are bred, the subsequent generations will not share this trait because the genes involved will re-pair into new combinations.)

While it is likely that a Barred Plymouth Rock/Rhode Island Red cross has been made frequently since the two breeds originated, the Black Star rose to fame shortly after World War II. Food rations, returning troops, the arrival of refugees, and a flourishing U.S. population led to some concerns about the nation’s food supply. Poultry scientists in quest of a truly exceptional laying hen experimented with many different breed combinations and hit upon the Black Star as a top solution.

Throughout the 1950s, the Black Star was among the most popular types of chicken used for commercial egg production. These days, other hybrids have largely taken its place in the brown egg market. But the Black Star still has a loyal following—it has earned its place as a good all-around homestead bird.

Black StarUses

The Black Star is a superb choice for a dual-purpose chicken for homesteads of all sizes and aspirations. The hens are good producers (good enough to support a small business direct marketing eggs!) and the roosters are hefty enough to make satisfactory fryers for home use. The Black Star can also fit into the family as a very amiable pet.

Temperament

This breed is calm and docile, making it very easy to handle and get along with. However, it also has a good dose of personality. It will probably tend toward the top of the pecking order.

Black StarHealth

The Black Star has an excellent immune system and appears to be less prone to external parasites than other chicken breeds. The only difficulty likely to be found in this breed is an occasional reproductive malfunction.

Pros

  • Certainty of getting hens or roosters exactly as ordered due to sex-linked color trait.
  • Excellent disposition.
  • Suitability for nearly all climates and weather conditions (particularly cold winters).
  • Adaptability to nearly any type of production system.
  • Excellent foraging instincts.
  • Feed efficiency.
  • Hardiness.
  • Longevity.
  • Excellent egg production, particularly for the first two years.

Cons

  • Loss of sex-linked color trait in future generations.
  • Lack of brooding instinct.

Black Star

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Chicken BreedsChicken Breeds

 

Australorp

AustralorpIn the early 1900s, the Orpington breed was being refined in England for appearance and show qualities. But this was not the case in Australia. At roughly the same time, the Australians were hard at work shaping their Black Orpington populations into a dual-purpose chicken par excellence.

To start with, the Australian poultrymen emphasized egg production and meat quality, and selected their Black Orpington breeding stock accordingly. To further realize the dual-purpose ideal, they added some Rhode Island Red blood. A few individuals also introduced a little bit of Minorca, Langshan, and White Leghorn to the mix to aid in laying ability. The resulting bird was a little coarse by English show standards, but the breeders’ efforts paid off when the hens began to achieve outstanding egg production records throughout the 1920s, one hen even laying 364 eggs in 365 days!

When the new breed was introduced to North America about this time, it was given the name Australorp to distinguish it from the British Orpington. It quickly became a popular dual-purpose chicken in flocks around the country. The Americans added their own touch by creating a white variety with additional White Leghorn crossbreeding throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

While dual-purpose chickens have not enjoyed success in commercial settings for quite some time, the Australorp nevertheless has earned itself a place as a popular heritage breed in the United States. It is well on its way to reaching a stable population size thanks to interest among backyard chicken keepers. The black variety is by far the most common, while the white and blue variations remain rare.

Uses

The primary purpose of the Australorp is to provide eggs and broilers for home use. However, its sweet disposition can also make it a fine pet or exhibition bird, especially if children are involved.

Some Australorps will go broody, an instinct they inherited from their Orpington progenitors, but on the whole the breed is not entirely reliable when it comes to setting (brooding and hatching) eggs. Each hen must be evaluated individually for setting instincts. Fortunately, those that do prove their setting abilities are almost invariably good mothers.

AustralorpTemperament

Australorps are extremely easy to get along with. Like many chickens, they can be shy unless tamed and accustomed to human contact, but they generally take to people quite quickly. They are friendly and quiet, but still active.

Most hens will tend toward the middle of the pecking order. They typically get along well with the rest of the flock.

The Australorp hen, if sufficiently broody to hatch her own eggs, is hard to beat as a mother. She is very affectionate and will make sure the needs of her charges are met.

The average Australorp rooster has the right personality to be a useful protector of the flock without being dangerous or a nuisance. While all roosters should be watched until proven to be safe, the Australorp rooster is usually alert but good-natured.

Health

The Australorp is an extremely healthy breed with a long productive lifespan. It should present few, if any, difficulties.

The only two problems worth watching out for are frostbitten combs in roosters (usually not a problem with the hens) and a tendency toward obesity, which can affect egg production. The former can be prevented with adequate shelter, particularly protection from cold winds, while the latter is addressed by giving the chickens access to fresh pasture and letting them stretch their legs on a daily basis.

AustralorpPros

  • Very safe, family-friendly disposition.
  • Willingness to stay fenced without flying out.
  • Suitability for backyards and urban settings.
  • Adaptability to free-range settings.
  • Excellent cold tolerance.
  • Fair heat tolerance when provided with adequate shade.
  • Excellent health.
  • Early maturity.
  • Large numbers of eggs.
  • Persistent egg production regardless of weather or season.
  • Good mothering instincts.
  • Significant meat production.

Cons

  • Scarcity of white and blue varieties.
  • Somewhat unreliable performance as a broody hen.
Complete Series

Chicken BreedsChicken Breeds

 

Araucana

AraucanaThe history of the Araucana is very hazy, although it is certain that the breed comes from the Araucanía region of Chile, where it was bred by the native peoples. No one seems to know for certain if the breed predates exploration by the Spanish or not, and new research often directly contradicts old research.

What we do know is that the Araucana was common in South America by the early 1900s, and it was during this time that the breed was introduced to the United States. It appears that the modern breed that Americans call the Araucana was developed on our shores by crossing two similar landraces—the rumpless, tuftless Collonca and the tailed, tufted Quetro. A bantam type also exists.

The recent popularity of the Araucana, owing to its unique appearance and beautiful blue eggs, has unfortunately encouraged some deception in the world of hatcheries. Be aware that not all chicks sold as Araucanas are really pure Araucanas, but may be any mix of breeds that will produce colorful eggs. While these hybrids, known as “Easter Eggers,” are delightful chickens in their own right, prospective buyers may want to check out the integrity of the hatchery to be sure they will actually receive what they have purchased. At the present time, the only reliable sources of true Araucanas are individual breeders.

Uses

The Araucana is primarily kept for the production of distinctive blue-shelled eggs. It is also an interesting ornamental breed and a delicious, if small, meat bird.

Temperament

This breed seems to have some wild instincts that may render it a challenge to tame. It is remarkably alert, even flighty. Some poultry keepers believe that the Araucana may be somewhat more intelligent than the average chicken.

For those who have the patience to tame the Araucana, it can settle down into a gentle, friendly bird.

AraucanaHealth

Contrary to popular belief, the rumpless gene found in Araucanas is not necessarily lethal, although it does come at a cost. Rumpless birds lack the tailbone, tail feathers, and the oil gland typically found at the base of a chicken’s tail. The altered body structure can reduce the success rate of breeding chickens. The lack of the oil gland results in chickens that do not shed water well. Rumplessness may even be associated with higher mortality rates during the last few days of hatching. In an attempt to remedy some of these difficulties, some breeders mate rumpless chickens to normal chickens. Unfortunately, this does not accomplish the desired purpose because quite a few of the chicks will likely end up with strange-looking partial tails. While the fertility rates of these intermediate birds are higher than those of rumpless birds, the intermediates often have the same high mortality rates as the rumpless birds and may only have a partially developed oil gland.

The tufted gene truly is lethal, and it is different from the genes that causes the muffs (sometimes also called “ear tufts”) of other chicken breeds. The tufts, also known as peduncles in this breed, are actually unique organs protruding from the bird’s faces and opening up into a blossom of feathers. Unfortunately, peduncles may arise internally and cause serious complications. Chicks with two copies of the tuft gene typically die before hatching; those that do hatch fail to thrive and are usually dead within a week. Chicks with one gene for tufts still have high mortality rates.

In short, the true-to-type Araucana as it is recognized in America today is virtually incompatible with nature. Araucana chicks invariably have high mortality rates due to the fact that the traits considered to be of paramount importance within the breed are harmful to the chicken.

Pros

  • Suitability for all climates.
  • Ability to adapt well to confinement.

AraucanaCons

  • Scarcity.
  • Deceptive marketing among some hatcheries.
  • Ability as an escape artist.
  • Fertility problems.
  • Low egg production.
  • Dislike of using nesting boxes to deposit eggs.
  • Low hatchability.
  • Difficulty of successfully breeding birds that are true to type.
Complete Series

Chicken BreedsChicken Breeds

 

Getting Started with Livestock Part 4: Breed

Getting Started with Livestock Part 4: BreedIf you’ve looked into breed options at all, you’re probably bewildered. What are the differences between all these breeds? How do you narrow it down to just one or two?

These are not always easy questions to answer. For one thing, it will depend on your particular set of circumstances. For another thing, no two individuals within a breed are exactly the same.

Defining Your Expectations

The best place to start is with a list of characteristics you definitely want and definitely don’t want in your chosen livestock. To narrow your options down, ask yourself these questions:

  • What am I raising this animal for? Eggs? Milk? Meat? Fiber?
  • What type of environment will my animals need to adapt to?
  • What kind of temperament will I best be able to get along with?
  • What is my price range?
  • What breeds are readily available in my area?
  • What breeds interest me the most?

Most prospective homesteaders will probably want to look for animals that are disease-resistant, parasite-resistant, and suitable for low-input pasture-based production. In Kansas, don’t forget to factor in the climatic extremes! If you are selling either animals or animal products, you may also want to think about traits that might give you a marketing advantage (popular, heritage, rare, health benefits, etc.).

Doing Your Research

Once you know what you are looking for, choosing a breed largely boils down to extensive research. Every breed has pros and cons, and every breed was developed to fit a particular set of conditions and expectations. The right breed for you will typically be a breed developed for essentially the same environment and production system you are dealing with.

What about crossbreeds and assorted mongrels? These may work great for you, or they may not. Again, it depends on your circumstances and the nature of the individual beast. A good rule of thumb is that crossbred animals are usually a great fit for production systems (hybrid vigor) and a poor fit for breeding systems (inconsistency). But this is a very general principle—the applications and pitfalls of crossbreeding are explained in more depth in our Breeding Toolbox series.

Ready to check out some of your options? Arm yourself with your laundry list, and spend some time with one of our breed guides. Also be sure to check out some of our other online resources for posts, books, and links relevant to your species of interest:

If you find a breed or several breeds that meet your requirements, you’re well on your way to having a great country adventure. Have fun!

Helpful Resources

Breeds of Livestock
An Oklahoma State University website featuring the histories and characteristics of all types of livestock.

Heritage Livestock Breeds Comparison Charts
A free online resource covering all types of heritage-breed livestock.

Choosing a Breed of CattleChoosing a Breed of Cattle
This book will walk you through the process of assessing your five needs, deciding whether purebred or crossbred cattle are right for you, and choosing from 40 beef, dairy, and dual-purpose breeds. More information and free sample pages are available for Choosing a Breed of Cattle.

Cattle BreedsCattle Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage cattle breeds, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.

Horse & Donkey BreedsHorse & Donkey Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage equines, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.

Goat BreedsGoat Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage goat breeds, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.

Chicken BreedsChicken Breeds
Our online guide to popular and heritage goat breeds, covering history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons.

Murray McMurray Chick Selector
This handy tool lets you filter chicken breeds by egg production, meat production, heat tolerance, cold tolerance, disposition, free-range suitability, and much more.

Getting Started With Livestock Part 3: Diet

Getting Started with Livestock Part 3: DietKeeping your animals on pasture obviously has financial benefits, and you’ve probably heard of the numerous health benefits, as well. Even nonruminants like pigs and poultry can derive a great portion of their diet from the pasture, although they will need some type of supplemental feed. So how do you make it all work?

Pasture

The key to using pasture as your sole or primary animal feed is to keep it in good shape. This means you can’t let your livestock trample or graze it into the dirt. The best way to avoid this is to ration pasture out just like you would feed—you give the animals a small space for a day or maybe a couple of days and then move them onto a fresh paddock. You keep working your way across your pastures in this fashion.

This is just a very superficial overview of rotational and management-intensive grazing methods. There’s actually a whole art to it, which is way beyond the scope of this post. Check the Helpful Resources below for more information.

Another thing you’ll have to think about is how many animals you can safely keep on your land. Stocking rates vary widely (sometimes even on the same property). Five acres per cow-calf pair seems to be the average in most parts of Kansas.

The cow-calf pair can in turn be used as a standard of measure, known as the animal unit, to calculate stocking rates for other types of livestock. Thus, on our average five Kansas acres, we could place one of the following options:

  • 1 cow-calf pair.
  • 1 stocker calf.
  • 3 ewe-lamb pairs.
  • 5 mature goats.
  • 1 pony (not a full-sized horse).
  • 1 bison.
  • 1 elk.

Stocking rates for pastured pork production have not received as much attention as those for other animals, so be prepared to do your own hands-on field research. A good starting point is to plan on about 10 pigs for every acre. Young, newly weaned pigs can be stocked more densely, while sows with litters will require more space.

Note that there are many variables that will affect your stocking rate. A 1,500-pound beef cow will require 1-1/2 times as much pasture as a 1,000-pound beef cow, for instance. Irrigation can squeeze more forage production out of your land. Also, simple attention to good grazing management will almost certainly raise your stocking rate above that of your neighbors!

Always err on the safe side when it comes to stocking rate. If you have a little more grass than your livestock need, it’s not a serious problem, but if you’re stuck with hungry animals, you’ll find yourself either buying hay or selling animals. Both can be painful, especially in a drought when everybody else is doing the same thing. A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t have enough experience to look at your land and roughly gauge how many animals you can put on it, you probably don’t need very many animals (at least not yet). Some experienced graziers recommend starting with herds as small as two to five head when learning grazing management.

Even in the winter, you may be able to keep your animals on pasture with proper planning. Stockpiling forage and planting cool-season grasses are two techniques for extending the grazing season and minimizing hay and feed consumption. Some animals, particularly dry beef cows, may even be able to thrive on dormant range grass in the winter with a protein supplement.

Harvested Forages

Of course, winter brings an end to the grazing season. Then what? Fortunately, hay and silage offer grain-free options.

Keep in mind that the quality of your harvested forage is very important. Animals cannot thrive on moldy hay, which can be a problem if the hay was improperly harvested or stored. Furthermore, blister beetles are toxic and can be a major problem in hay, particularly if you are feeding horses, so keep an eye out. Finally, remember that any pungent odors or flavors in hay for dairy animals will end up in your family’s milk supply!

The nutrient profile of the hay will depend on the types of forages that went into it. Legume hay is particularly noteworthy, as its high protein content can be absolutely essential or a needless expense, depending on what types of animals you have in what stages of production. Lactating animals will require more nutrition than dry animals (which is why it’s generally advisable to time breeding so that livestock will give birth when the weather is warm and the pastures are lush).

When it comes to sourcing harvested forage, you have three main options:

  • Harvest it yourself.
  • Have it custom-baled on your land.
  • Purchase it.

Determining which option is best for you is largely a matter of putting pencil to paper to work out the dollars and cents of the question. Also keep in mind that harvesting your own hay offers you more control over the quality but can be very expensive on a small scale. Purchasing hay, provided that it is good quality, offers an opportunity to bring in a natural source of soil fertility from outside, but it can also introduce noxious weeds and similar difficulties.

Getting Started with Livestock Part 3: DietFeed

Some animals will need feed to perform well and stay healthy. With these animals, you will have to be careful to keep your costs down without sacrificing the quality of their diet. Poultry and swine typically need some grain for peak health and performance. While ruminants are generally healthier without grain, some genetic lines (particularly among dairy animals) are bred for high production levels and may require feeding to avoid a breakdown. Horses may require supplemental feeding in winter or if working hard on a regular basis.

All this said, many animals are fed far more than is strictly necessary or even healthy. When determining whether or not your livestock will require feed, it is important to take genetics into account. If your goal is to minimize feed costs as much as possible, you will do well to seek out low-maintenance breeds, and low-maintenance genetics within those breeds. Thankfully, every livestock species still has breeds (typically heritage breeds) adapted to rustling their own living off the land.

Also consider your production system. Minimizing feed costs requires good attention to grazing management, and the smaller your property, the more important grazing management becomes. Furthermore, avoiding feed will often require some sacrifices, such as breeding in sync with the climate and accepting lower production levels.

What about growing your own grain for feed? Well, it just depends. Not only can creating a balanced ration be something of an art, the cost of making the feed can quickly add up to more than the purchase price elsewhere. Do the math. Does it make sense financially? Also, can you consistently guarantee the quantity and quality that your animals will need to stay healthy, particularly when first starting out?

Supplements

What kinds of supplements (if any) you need will largely depend on what kind of animals you have and where you live. Two people rarely agree on one magic formula. Many advocates of natural ways of raising all types of ruminants swear by kelp, and free-choice salt is also recommended in many situations. But what if your chickens are laying hens? Then you might want oyster shell or a feed that contains oyster shell. And what if you have dairy animals? You may need to consider a variety of vitamin supplements to keep them in top form. And what if your pastures are particularly poor? You may need a general-purpose stock lick.

The only way to know for sure what supplements will be necessary for your livestock is to do your research and then try it out. See what deficiencies are most common in your area to get off to a good start, but also be prepared to adjust down the road.

Planning a healthy diet for your animals is probably the most critical as far as your finances and their health are concerned, so take your time. Once you have a rough plan to reach your production, animal health, and food quality goals, you are ready to start looking into your breed options.

Helpful Resources

What is Management-Intensive Grazing?
An introduction to meeting the needs of both pastures and animals. Includes plenty of additional reading material.

Intensive Grazing: An Introductory Homestudy Course
For those who just want the basics of grazing management, this bulletin packs a great deal of essential information into a concise format.

What are Animal Units?
How to figure out how many animals your land can support.

Vitamins
Our own guide to the functions and natural sources of vitamins, along with symptoms of deficiency and toxicity.

Getting Started with Livestock Part 2: Fencing & Facilities

Getting Started with Livestock Part 2: Fencing & FacilitiesThere really is no one right way to fence and shelter your animals. It’s a subject that will largely depend on your individual circumstances. But it’s also a subject that must be addressed, so here goes.

Fencing

What type of fencing and where to put it is going to depend a great deal on what kind of livestock you have. Nearly all grazing animals respond well to electric fencing, which is great because a portable electric fence makes rotational grazing easy. Even goats, which are notorious for their scorn of conventional fencing, can be contained with an electric fence if properly trained (more on that in just a minute) and if the fence is always kept in good working order. There may be particular cases when you might need to use barbed wire for cattle, such as along a property line; just keep in mind that even cattle don’t respect a barbed-wire fence the way they do an electric one.

For the more vulnerable animals, such as sheep and chickens, you may want to consider electrified netting to exclude predators. Just be aware that this type of fencing isn’t as easy to handle, and the weeds must be kept away from the bottom strands. Also, even electric netting cannot contain a lightweight chicken in the habit of flying out. The best way to avoid escapes is to move the pen often enough to keep the birds busy and contented and to avoid placing potential launch pads near the fence. Stubborn cases may need to have their flight feathers trimmed.

With the exception of chickens, newly purchased animals will need to be trained to respect electric fencing. Training consists of placing the animal in a safe enclosure, such as a pipe corral, with a short strand of electrified fencing set up at about nose level. Once the animal has received a shock on the nose, it will develop a healthy respect for the fence. Animals that have been born on your pastures do not need to be trained to the fence if kept with the rest of the herd or flock, as they will be taught by their mothers and the other animals.

So where do you put fencing? Some type of permanent fencing should definitely go around the boundaries of your land, but the rest is a little more subjective. Many regenerative agriculture experts advise against fencing in straight lines because this practice does not take into account the natural landscape and its needs. Instead, fences should follow natural contours, keeping similar forages and areas of terrain together to ease management (see Water for Every Farm by P.A. Yeomans for an in-depth explanation; read our full review here).

In the beginning, however, you may want to keep permanent cross-fencing to a minimum while you practice grazing management techniques and learn how to “read” your land. A good rule of thumb—if you find you have left a temporary fence in the same location for about three years, you are ready to replace it with a permanent fence.

Getting Started with Livestock Part 2: Fencing & FacilitiesShelter

Shelter, too, largely depends on the type of animal you are raising. A short drive through just about any part of Kansas will tell you that beef cattle get along with little more shelter than a draw, a shelterbelt, or perhaps an artificial windbreak, depending on how far north and west you are. Sheep, on the other hand, can benefit from a simple shelter during lambing and after being sheared. Goats like to have someplace dry to go when it rains. A llama just wants a shady spot to lie down during the heat of the day (and maybe a kiddie pool). Chickens need shelter from rain, heat, cold, and predators, as well as a clean, dark, private place to lay eggs.

Of course, in no case does the shelter have to be elaborate. The simpler the better, especially if it’s only for seasonal use. If you can put it on wheels or skids and tow it around the back forty, so much the better.

Other Facilities

For most small animals, unless you’re starting in on a huge scale (not advisable), you probably aren’t justified in building elaborate facilities of any sort. If you have several dairy goats or cows, you may need to consider a portable milking parlor, and having a small corral for handling newly purchased beef cattle will probably make your life much easier. But for the most part, think simple. What are the bare basics you can start out with? One horse may require a field shelter, but almost certainly not a stable. Likewise, processing your own broiler chickens for personal consumption will not require you to build a professional abattoir. As you expand and gain experience, you’ll probably find it worth the money to invest in a better setup, but start small and grow into it.

Once you have a rough idea of the fencing, shelter, and other facilities you’ll need, you’ll be ready to juggle pasture, harvested forages, feed, and supplements as you put together a healthy diet for your livestock.

Helpful Resources

HomeMadeHomeMade
This handy book offers guidelines on building a number of structures for housing and containing livestock of all types. Great for the do-it-yourselfer! Read our full review.

Free LSU Building Plans
Although the plans at this site are free, they are generally more elaborate and geared toward commercial production. That said, there is quite a bit here that could prove useful to those getting started with livestock.

Getting Started With Livestock Part 1: Water

Getting Started with Livestock Part 1: WaterWhen it comes to keeping livestock, the water supply of your land base can be a major limiting factor. Therefore, before you invest any money in farm animals, it is crucial that you take stock of your water situation first.

Supply

Let’s start by examining the water resources you have available:

  • What water sources do you have? Wells? Springs? Creeks? Ponds? Cisterns?
  • How much flow or capacity does each water source provide?
  • How reliable is each source, especially in a drought?

You might want to consider writing out a water source inventory and keeping it in a handy place for reference.

Quality

As you write down the different sources of water available to you, also make a note of the general quality of the water. There is a saying that if you wouldn’t drink it, you shouldn’t make your animals drink it, either, but this is not necessarily always either true or practical. While you obviously want to avoid contamination as much as possible, and you should always strive to be a good steward of the water on your property, the importance of quality varies a great deal with the type of livestock you are raising. For dairy animals, clean water is an absolute must for quality milk production. Sheep also need reasonably clean water, or they won’t drink it. Chickens and beef cattle, on the other hand, seem to care very little about the state their drinking water is in. Yes, you should definitely give your livestock water that’s as clean and fresh as possible. But fit for human consumption? That may be a little over the top in most cases.

Water quality problems that are not acceptable include:

  • Unpleasant odors.
  • A pH below 5.5 or above 8.5.
  • Excessive salinity.
  • Fecal contamination.
  • Bacterial contamination
  • Blue-green algae.
  • High nitrate levels.
  • High sulfate levels.
  • Heavy metal contamination.

If there is reason to suspect that your water sources are less than ideal, some testing and remedial action is in order.

While you’re already thinking about water quality, you may also want to take a moment to think about extremes of temperature. Your animals will need cool water in the summer and unfrozen water in the winter. How will you get it to them?

Demand

Now that you know what you’ve got to work with, you need to find out how much water your chosen animals will drink in a day. Will your water resources limit the number of livestock you can keep? Bear in mind that there are many variables at play here. For example, a lactating cow will drink more than a steer, a milk goat more than a meat goat, and a European sheep more than a Navajo sheep, especially in summer.

For a starting point, consider the following estimates of daily water consumption per head:

Beef Cattle:

  • Calves: 5 gals/day.
  • Stocker calves: 15.
  • Dry cows and heifers: 15.
  • Cow/calf pairs: 20.
  • Bulls: 20.
  • Finishing cattle: 25.

Dairy Cattle:

  • Calves: 5 gals/day.
  • Heifers: 10.
  • Dry cows: 15.
  • Milking cows: 40.

Equines:

  • Ponies: 5 gals/day.
  • Light horses: 10.
  • Heavy horses: 16.
  • Donkeys: 6.

Pigs:

  • Weaners: 1 gals/day.
  • Feeders: 3.
  • Boars: 5.
  • Gestating sows: 5.
  • Lactating sows: 6.

Sheep and Goats:

  • Lambs and kids: 1 gals/day.
  • Rams and bucks: 2.
  • Gestating ewes and does: 2.
  • Lactating meat ewes and does: 3.
  • Lactating dairy ewes and does: 4.

Exotics:

  • Bison: 6 gals/day.
  • Elk: 6.
  • Llamas and alpacas: 3.

Please be aware that this is not intended to be a definitive guide to animal water consumption. The amount of variables that can affect the amount of water any given animal drinks on any given day is staggering. Until you get a better feel for your livestock and your water supply, think in terms of worst-case scenario.

So does your projected water use match your available water resources? If not, you will need to plan to either reduce your water use or increase your water supply.

Getting Started with Livestock Part 1: WaterDelivery

Water delivery methods vary by species, but there are a few golden rules that always apply:

  • Your animals should never run out of water at any point during the day.
  • They should have a fresh supply at least every 24 hours.
  • Their water should be protected from soiling as much as possible.

This means that you may be breaking ice at regular intervals in the winter. It also means that hanging poultry drinkers should be monitored for leaks periodically. And it means that livestock should not be allowed to swim in the pond (ducks, geese, and swans are the exceptions, as they benefit from having water to bathe in).

Other logistical factors unique to your situation will apply. For example, moving cattle to fresh paddocks daily will likely necessitate a portable stock tank.

So do you have enough water to supply your animals? If so, you’re ready to take a look at fencing and facilities.

Helpful Resource

Waterers and Watering Systems
Free PDF from K-State that provides an overview of water sources, power sources, drink delivery options, livestock water requirements, and permits.